2012-08-24 / Front Page
Legislation would bolster air support for irefighters
Blown in from the Mojave and Sonoran deserts each autumn, the dry and powerful winds are infamous for fanning the flames of Southern California wildfires capable of wiping out hundreds of acres of forested mountains in a matter of days.
Dumbauld, along with other Ventura County firefighters, is concerned a lack of air support to battle such fires may make the county—and Southern California as a whole—especially at risk for the fast-moving fires pushed by the Santa Ana winds. county’s aviation unit, staffed by the sheriff’s and fire departments, has four 375-gallon waterdropping helicopters to fight fires, but only two are operational due to maintenance issues.
“All the (helicopters) are quite old,” Dumbauld said. “Here we are in fire season and we only have one (helicopter) set up as a primary water dropper because one always has to be ready for paramedics and rescue.”
When the county needs additional air support, neighboring counties, such as Santa Barbara or Los Angeles, provide choppers, or the U.S. Forest Service sends large planes called air tankers to drop 1,000 to 3,000 gallons of orange flame retardant on forest fires to keep the blaze at bay.
The tankers are in high demand, and there aren’t enough to go around.
The Forest Service has eight planes available. The service had 43 air tankers in 2000, but most have broken down, aged out or crashed.
The lack of air support is especially problematic during a fire season that has seen over 7 million acres burned in the U.S. this year.
“This has been a challenging, fairly severe fire season, but it’s pretty consistent with what we’ve been seeing since 2000,” said Randy Eardley, a spokesperson with the National Interagency Fire Center based in Idaho.
Eardley said September and October are especially active months for fires in California.
To help bolster the number of firefighting planes, U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, who represents Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, drafted a stand-alone bill and an amendment to the Department of Defense Act that would provide more air tankers to the Forest Service.
The Forest Service said in a February report that while air tankers aren’t the only aerial response to wildfires, the planes “play a key role in successful initial attack, which is one of the most difficult and critical components of wildfire management.”
The stand-alone bill, which is being considered by the House Committee on Agriculture, would activate eight older air tankers now in storage. It would also require the Forest Service to use local air tankers on military bases to fight fires if air tankers contracted through private companies are farther away.
“When you’re fighting a wildfire, time is of the essence, and you can’t afford to wait,” said Tom Pfeifer, communications director for Gallegly’s office. “If a plane from Canada can’t get (to the fire) in 24 hours and a plane from Channel Islands can get there in two hours, use the plane from the base and send them back home when you don’t need the unit.”
The other piece of legislation, an amendment to the Department of Defense Act, would activate four of the eight older air tankers in storage. It would also give the Forest Service funds to purchase two second-generation air tankers.
Pfeifer said the amendment is similar to the bill because if one doesn’t pass, the other one may.
The Department of Defense Act with Gallegly’s proposed amendment will be considered in the Senate after Congress returns from recess in September.
A second helicopter
Capt. Jerry Vandermeulen with the county’s aviation unit knows firsthand how stretched aerial support can be in the state. His unit has responded to fires in Los Padres National Forest this year because the federal agency already had its helicopters in use.
Vandermeulen said it’s common in Northern California for air tankers or other types of planes to reach a fire first because it may take hours for a ground crew to respond in rural counties or in the forests.
“Obviously we’re concerned,” he said, “especially when we go into forests, because a little fire can go and go.”
The captain said the county is trying to acquire a second helicopter and may look into a partnership with a private company to contract a helicopter to battle brush fires.